News || William Littler Article

"Don't let Weinzweig's art die with him" A plea for Canadian music from William Littler, columnist for the Toronto Star

The shelf of books on Canadian music — the classical as opposed to the pop kind, or jazz — is a sadly narrow one, broadened in recent months by the addition of a superb volume of essays on perhaps Toronto’s most influential composer ever, John Weinzweig.

Weinzweig died in 2006 — his worst career move, as I bitterly remarked to John Beckwith on the occasion of a concert at the University of Toronto marking his own 80th birthday.

Beckwith was a Weinzweig composition student. So was Brian Cherney, his co-editor of Weinzweig: Essays on his Life and Music (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). The list of their like includes Murray Adaskin, Samuel Dolin, Harry Freedman, Phil Nimmons, Harry Somers, Norma Beecroft, Srul Irving Glick, Bruce Mather, R. Murray Schafer, Robert Aitken and David Jaeger, to name a few — and I do mean a few. No one else has approached Weinzweig as a teacher of future Canadian composers.

And yet, one has only to consult the compact disc included in the Beckwith-Cherney tribute volume, embracing some of his music from 1937 to 1994, to realize that Weinzweig was never in the business of cloning himself.

Born in Toronto, March 11, 1913, the eldest child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, he began studying music at the age of 14, taking mandolin and piano lessons and then expanding his range in the Harbord Collegiate and Central High School of Commerce Orchestras to include such other instruments as the sousaphone, tenor saxophone and bass.

It was at the University of Toronto that he decided to become a composer, a radical, not to say irrational notion in the Canada of the 1930s, a time when he also founded and conducted the university symphony orchestra.

After showing some of his scores to the prominent American composer Howard Hanson, he was encouraged to cross Lake Ontario and enroll for graduate work at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where Hanson acted as director.

It was there, rather than at the University of Toronto, that young Weinzweig was able to study 20th-century music (although Healey Willan, Canada’s most widely celebrated composer of the day, had given him a solid grounding in counterpoint). At Eastman he was exposed to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Berg’s Lyric Suite, the former reinforcing his already jazz-influenced interest in rhythm, the latter exposing him to Schoenberg’s 12-tone system of composition.

Although he did not return to Toronto as a doctrinaire serialist, he is generally acknowledged as the composer who introduced 12-tone to Canada.

Earning a living as a freelance composer in Canada in those days pretty much meant working for the CBC and the National Film Board, for which he turned out literally scores of scores after returning from band-instructing service in the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

But the postwar period also witnessed his growing role as a champion of all Canadian notesmiths. One of the founders and first president of the Canadian League of Composers in 1951, he was himself — for all his education as “a self-made composer,” to borrow the title of Beckwith and Cherney’s opening chapter — a 60-year fighter for appropriate recognition of his profession.

John Osborne may have been one of Britain’s Angry Young Men but insofar as music is concerned, John Weinzweig became one of Canada’s Angry Old Men, never abandoning his role as a conscience, never letting us forget how inadequately our native institutions have supported the creative act.

Yes, he did win a 1948 Silver Medal at the Olympics (which then included artistic competitions) for his Divertimento No. 1. He won many other honours as well. The honour he really wanted was performances — which brings us back to my lobby conversation with John Beckwith.

I asked Beckwith when he had last heard a note of Weinzweig’s music in a public concert. I also asked him when he had last heard a note by Harry Somers or Oskar Morawetz. The best thing you can do, I suggested, is to stay alive. With few exceptions, we shelve our composers’ music shortly after we write their obituaries.

One of many interesting chapters in the Beckwith-Cherney volume finds flutist-composer Robert Aitken, one of Canada’s pre-eminent wind players, writing about “How to Play Weinzweig.” He gives a partial response to his own chapter title when he writes “Ideally a performer should work with the composer, even collaborate.”

Performers who work with composers help establish a tradition of performance and where Canadian music is concerned we have had all too few of them. Aitken himself is one. Among conductors the admirable Victor Feldbrill is another. Where are their colleagues? If Canadian music is to be a living as opposed to a museum art, we must, as John Weinzweig tirelessly and eloquently argued, perform it.